Saturday, January 19, 2013

Is Finance Too Big?

Is finance too big? Here's a draft essay on the subject. There is a pdf on my webpage, and updates, revisions and a final version will end up there.

This came about as a "response essay" to Robin Greenwood and David Scharfstein's "The growth of modern finance" for the Journal of Economic Perspectives. That's why Robin and David are the target of a lot of criticism. But they're really just standing in for a lot of opinion that finance is "too big," in part because they did such a good and evenhanded job of synthesizing that point of view. So, sorry for picking on you, Robin and David!

I'm sure the JEP will make me cut it down and tone it down, so this is the fun first draft.

Is Finance Too Big?

John H. Cochrane [1],[2]
January 7 2013

I. Introduction

The US spends $150 billion a year on advertising and marketing[3]. $150 billion, just to trick people into buying stuff they don’t need. What a waste. 

There are 2.2 people doing medical billing for every doctor that actually sees patients, costing $360 billion[4] -- 2.4% of GDP. Talk about “too big!”

Wholesale, retail trade and transportation cost 14.6% of GDP, while all manufacturing is only 11.5% of GDP. We spend more to move stuff around than to make it! 

A while ago, my wife asked me to look at light fixtures. Have you seen how many thousands of different kinds of light fixtures there are? The excess complexity is insane. Ten ought to be plenty.

It’s ridiculous how much people overpay for brand names when they can get the generic a lot cheaper. They must be pretty naive.

Business school finance professors are horribly overpaid. Ask an anthropologist!  We must really have snowballed university administrations to get paid nearly half a million bucks, and work a grand total of 10 weeks a year, all to teach students that there is no alpha to be made in the stock market.

Did you know that Kim Kardashian gets $600,000 just to show up at a nightclub in Vegas?  How silly is that?

It’s a lot of fun to pass judgment on “social benefits,” “size,” “complexity” of industry, and “excessive compensation” of people who get paid more than we do, isn’t it? But it isn’t really that productive either.

As economists we have a structure for thinking about these questions.

More new-Keynesian paradoxes

Last week I saw Johannes Wieland's paper "Are negative supply shocks expansionary at the zero lower bound?"  A side benefit of the job market season is that we see interesting new papers like this one, and it contributed to my project of trying to better understand new-Keynesian models.

Though starting academic papers with blog quotations is usually a bad idea, Johannes starts with a great and very appropriate one,
As some of us keep trying to point out, the United States is in a liquidity trap: [...] This puts us in a world of topsy-turvy, in which many of the usual rules of economics cease to hold. Thrift leads to lower investment; wage cuts reduce employment; even higher productivity can be a bad thing. And the broken windows fallacy ceases to be a fallacy: something that forces firms to replace capital, even if that something seemingly makes them poorer, can stimulate spending and raise employment.” -Paul Krugman
I endorse this quote, because it is an accurate and pithy description of the properties of many careful new-Keynesian analyses in the academic literature.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Two cents on the trillion dollar coin, and a debt-limit schedule

The Fed and Treasury say they're not going to try the trillion-dollar coin idea to avoid the debt limit. But the episode is very revealing about how our fiscal and monetary policies work, (or don't, as the case may be), numerous misconceptions floating around, and leads to a thought on a better way to approach the same objectives, which might be a useful compromise for both sides.

I. Why the limit binds

First, just to be clear, let me clarify the playlist: 
  • Debt: US government bonds, issued by the Treasury. Promises to pay for your healthcare is not "debt," and if the government reneges on that promise it's not a "default."
  • Cash: Bills and coins.
  • Reserves: Essentially checking accounts at the Fed. Banks may freely obtain cash in return for reserves and vice versa.We often say "the Fed prints money" when in fact what it does is to create reserves.
In the first debt-limit debate, I was initially puzzled that it was a problem at all. The "debt limit" does not include currency or reserves, though both are functionally US government debt. That seems like an unfortunate oversight:  Why can't the government just pay its bills by printing money, i.e. creating reserves? Sure, you might worry about inflation sooner or later, but this is a legal question. The government can print money to pay its bills, no?

Well, no, which is really interesting.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Two milestones passed this week, the one year birthday of this blog, and the millionth hit. OK, I'm not in the big leagues yet, but it continues to be a lot of fun. I appreciate all of you who read, and all the comments too. Well, almost all the comments.

(Photo credit: Ty Bellitti Photography)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Managing a liquidity trap

I've been catching up on my new-Keynesian economics and found a little gem by Ivan Werning, "Managing a liquidity trap"

The policy issue is this: we're in a recession. Interest rates are zero, and can't go lower. The Fed is desperately trying to goose the economy. Lots of people (most of the recent Jackson Hole Fed conclave) are advising  "open-mouth operations," and  "managing expectations," that the key to current prosperity is for the Fed to make statements  about what it will do in the future; and these statements on their own, with no concrete action, will "increase demand" and lower today's unemployment. The Fed has been convinced, with more and more "forward guidance" as part of its strategy.  For example, the latest FOMC statement made history by promising zero interest rates as long as unemployment stays above 6 and a half percent and inflation below two and a half.

Does any of this make any sense?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Fiscal cronyism

I thought of a nice thing to say about the "fiscal cliff" outcome. At least the tax rates are "permanent." We will be spared the annual last-minute crisis when the "Bush tax cuts expire."  Further tax increases will take a new initiative, not a scheduled cliff.

The exact opposite happened on the special-deal side: all the "temporary" special deals got extended for a year, a recipe to tell lobbyists they'd better stay on Congress' and the Administration's good side through next year, and a lovely way for long-run budget numbers not to reflect actual spending.

Daniel Henninger's excellent Wall Street Journal column covered this aspect well:
The section titled "Business Tax Extenders" gets ink because it is so ripe for "Daily Show" ridicule.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fiscal cliff video

I did a "Chicago tonight" segment on the fiscal cliff,

The other guest, Carl Tannenbaum, is a good friend as well as a thoughtful economist. We went to high school together. It was a pleasant surprise to run in to him in the foyer of WTTW's studios.

The intro segment is worth watching too. "Chicago tonight's" producers wisely got a real tax lawyer to explain what the "cliff" is all about.

How nice to start with a quick review of strategies that "the rich" will use to avoid the new taxes.

One year from now, the studies will start rolling in (I hope) documenting how much extra revenue the fiscal cliff tax hikes actually collected from their targets. My bet: less than half of the $60 billion advertised. I'll be surprised if it's positive, actually.

Who won the fiscal cliff negotiations? Democrats? Republicans? VP Joe Biden? No. Tax lawyers, accountants, and lobbyists.

In case you think any of this had to do with deficits, I sign off today with a lovely graph from a great piece by Yuval Levin:

And it will be less than that. Yuval uses the CBO forecasts, which assume rich people don't watch "Chicago tonight" and talk to their tax lawyers.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Local news: Food trucks and movie theaters

Two fun bits of local (Chicago) news, lest you think that over regulation, incumbent protection, rent-gathering and general idiocy reign only in Washington. Food trucks and movie theaters.

Revolving door

The Wall Street Journal reveals a good way to make money in the new US economy: Work for agencies like the CFTC who get to write huge complex and vague rules for financial companies, with lots of discretion and supervision, then go work for the companies who have to comply with said rules.

A few tidbits from "Hot Commodities: CFTC Staffers" (which is a news story, not an editorial)
Dodd-Frank has prompted strong demand for staffers from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The law gave the agency broad new responsibilities to write rules for complex derivatives called swaps that had been largely unregulated. Many rules already are in place, while others will take effect next year. The new swaps rules have swept many more financial firms under the agency's jurisdiction, boosting demand for even midlevel staffers with just a few years' experience.